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This inn was for many years the rendezvous of all the nobility of the west country, and of distinguished strangers. Balls, suppers, and county meetings were held within it. Here the Lords of Justiciary were lodged when on circuit in Glasgow. They walked in their robes and wigs in procession down the Gallowgate to the Court Hall in the Tolbooth, at the Cross. Lord Hailes, Lord Kames, Sir Islay Campbell, the coarse but shrewd Lord Justice-Clerk Macqueen of Braxfield, graced the inn with their presence, or mayhap enlivened it with their songs and mirth. At the numerous magisterial dinners held here, a brace of town officers stood at the head of the staircase in scarlet swallows, with their halberts, while the waiters inside frisked to and fro, powdered, and liveried with red plush breeches and embroidered coats.
It is recorded that in 1779 a great county dinner party was held in the Saracen’s Head. Tradition says that the young county gentlemen were all mightily pleased at seeing a score of beautiful, blooming damsels attired as servants, and wearing white aprons, thronging the stair with dishes and serving the table with the most fascinating grace. They never, they loudly professed, had witnessed such a set of entrancing waiting-maids before, and began to compliment the gracious landlady on her matchless importation of English servants. When, however, the secret came out that these fair ones, so “buxom, blithe, and debonair,” were young ladies whom the gentlemen knew, and who were sent to the establishment for instruction, the young lairds soon found their way to the kitchen, and insisted that they, too, should instantly be apprenticed as cooks and waiters.
In this inn Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, poet, and critic, sojourned for several days on his return from his tour to the Hebrides. Boswell describes the incident: “On our arrival at the Saracen’s Head inn, at Glasgow, I was made happy by good accounts from home; and Dr. Johnson, who had not received a single line since we left Aberdeen, found here a great many letters, the perusal of which entertained him much. He enjoyed in imagination the comforts we could now command, and seemed to be in high glee. The professors of the university having heard of our arrival, Dr. Stevenson, Dr. Reid, and Mr. Anderson (the founder of the Andersonian University, George Street), breakfasted with us. Mr. Anderson accompanied us while we viewed this beautiful city. Professors Reid and Anderson, and the two Messrs. Foulis, the Elzevirs of Glasgow, dined and drank tea with us at our inn.” Here, too, in 1778, rested the great poet, Robert Burns, on his return from Edinburgh on 28th February, 1788, where he met his brother William, the young saddler, and his old friend the ship captain, Richard Brown of Irvine, and from which he addressed a letter (happily one of the last) to Clarinda.
We learn of another distinguished party who sojourned in this same hostelry on their visit to Glasgow. In the summer of 1803 William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge “put up” here for two days while on their tour through Scotland. After having seen Lanark, Hamilton, Bothwell Brig, and Bothwell Castle, concerning which magnificent and picturesque ruin Wordsworth composed the fine sonnet beginning with the lines—
“Immured in Bothwell’s towers, at times the brave—
So beautiful is Clyde-forget to mourn
The liberty they lost at Bannockburn,”
they entered Glasgow by Gallowgate, and alighted at this, the only dignified inn of which the city then could boast. Dorothy tells in her journal of this tour, which she published in after days, and which, for picturesque power and purity, is not inferior to her distinguished brother’s prose, how that, after they had dined, rested, and read the letters which awaited them, they strolled through the city, whose interesting sights they admired exceedingly. One incident in connection with the departure of the party from the Saracen’s Head strikes us strangely in these days of multifarious means of locomotion. The hackney coach in which Wordsworth’s party travelled was one of the first that had ever been seen in the city; and, when they left the inn on their journey towards Dumbarton and Loch Lomond, the wonder-stricken Glasgow urchins followed the equipage with glee till it was several miles on the Dumbarton Road!